The Bhagavad Gita fills our minds with imagery that corresponds to our emotions and our imagination. It provides something of a road map to help us direct and manage our actions. Perhaps most significantly, it responds to questions that human intelligence cannot answer yet never stops asking. These questions have been posed by philosophers and scientists, by seekers of God and seekers of truth, by people who wonder and by people who doubt. Lord Krishna’s answers go beyond what we know, but do not contradict what we know. What His words really tell us, is that if we look hard enough and long enough and if we care enough the answers will be revealed.
Everything we read or see or hear is processed through our experience, be it first hand or second hand or even more remote.
What I wonder about the most, are things people have no idea about. We cannot imagine shapes, or thoughts, or ideas that are entirely alien.
All our notions, be they of aliens, beings, creations, machines, natural phenomena, or whatever are permutations and combinations of familiar stuff. They are notions of what is known, and hence, fathomable. They relate to something we have seen, or heard, or touched, or tasted, or felt, or smelled, or inherited, or understood either first hand or via some communication from someone else.
I wonder if there is anything else out there: colors beyond those that exist in our rainbow, or beings that differ from those whose ancestry we have traced, or substances that are beyond our conception. I wonder what else could exist.
Churchill is believed to have said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.” Most of us who live in democracies think this is absolutely true. Also, most of us pretty much take our democracies for granted. We think it is a given in our nations and that it will last for the foreseeable future.
We do not realize, that government by the people, of the people and for the people may not endure. We forget that democracy did not last even two centuries in Greece, where it was born and that it is not the order of the world any more than other forms of government. Dictatorships, benevolent and malevolent, oligarchies, communism, imperialism and ebb and flow on our planet.
I am frightened by the fragility of democracy. I worry about the tensions that threaten it. I think the demise of democracy is a scary prospect and I hear alarm bells ringing across the globe and at home.
We, the human members of our planet, of our nations and of our communities, are conflicted. On the one hand, we want to belong, to fit in and to share our lives with others. On the other, we want to own our personal space, to stand out and to keep our privacy.
Not only are we conflicted in our interactions, but our natures which resist discipline tempt us with intemperance. For example, we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to eat a lot without getting fat or feeling stuffed. We want to be couch potatoes and feel fit. We want to party, but not feel exhausted. We want to sleep but also be productive.
Calibration can help us manage our conflicted selves. If we balance our opposing urges by practicing moderation, we can experience greater harmony. But too much moderation is boring and unstimulating. So, I note that everything should be practiced in moderation, even moderation.
Our world’s religions tell varying tales of creation, but for the most part, they involve God in some way. We hear stories of how and why and how quickly our world came to be. According to the Bhagavad Gita, in which many Hindus believe, either literally or symbolically, the world was God’s idea. Furthermore, Lord Krishna, in Chapter Ten, explains that He causes the world to appear and disappear simply because He wants it to.
At the same time, the whole purpose of life in the view of many religions is to obtain happiness in the afterlife.
I think these notions are somewhat odd. They suggest that our existence is an exercise in futility. We and the whole world did not exist. Then God creates the world and us and then it all will disappear. Yet our goal in this life exercise is to be as good as possible in order to make our non-existence blissful.
Many of us recognize that in the course of our activities and behaviors, our journeys mean more than reaching our destinations. So, though we are focused on our goals, most of our energy is expended in transit. We also recognize that the effects of our journeys are what we leave behind. But to what end?
The mind and body are part of nature and matter rather than an essential or integral part of the God, although God is everywhere. In his manifest form, God personifies the same subtle elements that make up the body plus mind, reason and the self:
I am made of the earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, reason, and the self. These eight things are one side of Me is what makes the whole world exist and is called the “life principle.”
The Gita understands God to be both the knower and the known, or that which we wish to know. He is the great soul, the individual soul called Atman. He is spirit. God is the knower of the universe and the knower of the “field” which means the human body as well as all embodiment. “Field” refers to place or area, like “field of knowledge.” The term field implies that the body is a place where action or conflict occurs. Lord Krishna delivered the Bhagavad Gita on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, also known as the field of Dharma or righteousness.
Hinduism sees the body and the mind as one unit, separate and distinct from the soul:
The body is a collection of many things. It is made up of ether, air, fire, water, and earth. These are called the five subtle elements. The body is also made up of mind and the five senses of hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling. Wanting, hating, happiness, unhappiness, and courage are also part of the body.
Although God cannot be understood by the mind, God can be known by the spirit. In chapter seven of the Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjun that he will understand God after knowing Him. God says the He knows all beings, but they do not know Him. People cannot see God because confusion and desire cover their minds, but they can reach God by seeking Him.
The Sanskrit language distinguishes between spiritual knowledge (seeing, knowing) and rational knowledge (understanding). We can come to know God only by seeking Him. Trying to understand God is a path to knowing Him, yet we cannot understand God without knowing Him. This is an apparent paradox, not a real one. It means that we must take steps toward understanding God in order to experience God. While the absolute cannot be understood by our finite mind, it can be known by our infinite soul. However, the soul can only experience the truth if the mind strives for it to do so. Reason or understanding is a path that leads to spiritual knowledge, but only spiritual knowledge has the power to reveal God.
This excerpt is from On Hinduism by Irina Gajjar. If you’d like to read more from On Hinduism, you can find the book here.
The Gita develops around the concept of a universal God who can be envisioned, though not understood on a human level, and around the idea that life’s purpose is to attain unity with God. This precept is implicit as are other fundamental beliefs like reincarnation. When the Gita makes explicit references to such ideas that are a familiar part of Hinduism, It does so for emphasis or analogy rather than for evaluation. It reiterates them and alludes to them in different contexts, but the beliefs themselves are treated as givens, not as theories. They considered beyond question, though not beyond interpretation:
She who always worships God faithfully Crossed past the world And becomes a part of God.
Perhaps the most awesome verses in the Gita are those that speak of God’s power and grandeur, depicting Him in all aspects and all forms. God is earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, reason, the seed of all beings, Om, and the Self. God lives in the heart of all living things. Everything that is glorious or brilliant or strong is a spark of His brightness. He is the essence of life. God is Brahma, the Creator who caused the world to be and from whom all things come. He is Vishnu, the Preserver. In this form God is a wonderful sight adorned with jewels and weapons, and heavenly garlands, and covered with fragrant paste. He holds the whole world by just a flicker of His divinity. As the Destroyer, He is Shiva who makes all the worlds afraid. He appears in multiple colored forms. He has large shining eyes and a wide open mouth filled with terrible teeth. His awful brightness burns the universe.
Yet, howsoever the ancients described God millennia ago and however we may visualize God today, the Bhagavad Gita explains:
God is beyond what your mind can understand. God likes the sun far beyond the darkness of ignorance.
Arjun’s journey from doubt to faith symbolizes mankind’s journey. The journey is premised on a belief in a principle greater than ourselves and on a belief that we can ultimately transcend our human limits. Meanwhile, as we travel on the road to enlightenment, we can improve our human condition. But the journey must begin with the idea or hope that the end will have meaning.
God is The Gita’s premise. Its message is that life’s purpose is to attain enlightenment and eternal bliss merging into God. This message is a familiar one. However, its new and concise formulation coalesced Hindu thought and its fresh expression has guided Hindu behavior into the twenty-first century. In the revelation that is the Gita, God delivers His word with beauty and simplicity. This scripture contains eighteen chapters and seven hundred verses upon which uncounted commentaries have been written and continue to be written.
In the course of responding to Arjun, God as Lord Krishna unclouds Arjun’s vision, opens his mind and touches his heart. He speaks of His own nature and power, of human nature and human duty, or worlds, knowledge, of what is knowable, of the universal and human cycles of birth, life, and death and He speaks truth. Questions related to these matters intersect and overlap and they give rise to further questions and answers. In the end, the Gita paints an integrated picture of our human role in the vast scheme of things that is beyond us but not beyond our wonder.